Twitter backlash exposes shallowness of modern psychology

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The Inquisitr responds to a recent Times article on Twitter with the phrase 'load of bollocks, up to a point'  but he is wrong. It is entirely and thoroughly bollocks. There is not a single quote in that article that is not at least partially nonsense. More than anything the psychiatric response to Twitter stems from the profound failure of modern psychology which for the last hundred or so years has lived off a populist reification of some of Freud's interesting insights. For instance this quote from Alain de Botton:

A load of Twitter - Times Online “To ‘follow’ someone is to have a fantasy of who this person you’re following is, and you use it as a map reference or signpost to guide your own life because you are lost,” says James. “I would guess that the typical profile of a ‘follower’ is someone who is young and who feels marginalised, empty and pointless. They don’t have an inner life,” he says.


This is nonsense that can be luckily empirically tested. The reasons people follow people on Twitter a diverse and to make a guess like that only shows that many today's psychologists are so in love with their theories that they can't even be bother to do a proper study before making dismissive comments about entire populations. That which would be profoundly unethical in the diagnosis of the individual is all of a sudden fine when applied to a group even though it's even less well-founded. I have no idea what a typical profile of a follower on Twitter is, but presumably the motivation for following will be different for the different people followed. There are friends, business partners, news organisations, experts with things to say, companies with announcements, and celebrities the minutia whose life may be entertaining, revealing or demystifying in equal measure. So even if we can't find a unified profile within a single person's list of the 'followed' how can we profile a whole group of 'followers'. We can't. And to do so under the protection of fake expertise is a sign of intellectual corruption of the purveyors of this nonsense and says nothing at all of the Twitter many.

The Inquisitr continues:

Let the Twitter backlash begin: Times calls Twitter users narcissistic Andy Pemberton in The Times leads the charge, with an article that calls Twitter users narcissistic among other things. Some choice quotes:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

How about this for a generalisation: 'Nobody would peddle a self-serving quote not based on any research at all to mud-slinging journalist, if they had an an ounce of academic integrity.' This is such patent lunacy that can be disproven by a simple look at the prominent Twitters - all people with incredibly strong identies. In fact, people without an sense of identity might be much less likely to Twitter because each tweat is exposing a part of the identity to public scrutiny that can be quite frightening to do. But Oliver James' waffle is an example of a common misuse of clinical psychology that is often the subject of debate. I have no doubt that in his practice, he encounters many patients who have severe impairments stemming from a lack of something we might call identity (and I don't for a moment expect that he would consider identity a straightforward concept). But these can only be diagnosed through extensive clinical testing and not on the basis of a metaphorical hunch. The same thing happened with IQ tests which started being a close one-on-one testing of a single child by a highly-trained professional in order to determine their mental development with respect to their peer group and now are applied to anyone through a thirty minute culturally biased questionnaire for any reason whatsoever. Psychologists are unjustifiably too keen to use their experience as the basis for a metaphor for society but they have neither the data nor the tools to analyse them:

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

This is more unjustified nonsense. First, calling this the most narcissistic age ever has absolutely no foundation. While narcissism may be (with some doubts) an actual disorder afflicting some individuals, it is NOT something that can be applied to a whole group or even claimed to have increased in incidence. In general it is safe that when somebody claims for an age to be 'the most' anything, they are wrong, and can be taken no more seriously than a grump in a pub complaining 'these kids today'. And as a cognitive neuroscientist, Lewis can have absolutely nothing expert to say about a social phenomenon.

Furthermore, this statement implies that identity is not based on group ties and that 'being recognised' by others is not an important part of it. People with a strong sense of identity are generally the ones receiving a lot of recognition - and it doesn't matter whether we think their identity is 'good'. So having followers on Twitter is certainly as many people put it 'good for the ego' but very few people start posting to Twitter because of a sense of insecurity.

Quoting Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

“Receiving a tweet is like a friend whispering something in your ear,” says de Botton. “We all want people to whisper secret messages to us. Children like to play ‘I have a secret to tell you’. It’s great fun, but what they say is often not very important.”

Again, this is based on an assumption that personal identity is in some way a profound thing - a fallacy that is at the heart of a lot of failings of the spirituality movement. But most of the things people do to maintain their individual and group identity are not important at all. Much of our discourse serves no greater purpose than primate grooming (cf. Robin Dunbar) and that includes a lot of academic discourse - the whole referencing system is based on not much more. So when the journalist asks "What kind of person shares information with the world the minute they get it?", the answer is any normal person does. Twitter just makes it possible to share instantly with many people but it relies entirely on well-established social and psychological phenomena that are not only perfectly normal but necessary to the functioning of humans in groups.

But, of course, even more so, this quote also again demonstrates the complete lack of any empirical engagement with the subject matter. People don't 'receive tweets' in the same way that they would a whisper in the ear. If anything, seeing someone's tweet could have a voyeristic quality if it's a personal message but most of the tweets many people receive are no different than simply reading the headlines in a newspaper.

So in conclusion, when The Inquisitr says "Saying all these things falls into the stereotype category; while it’s true for some, it’s not for all." He's being too generous. And he later falls into the same trap assuming that the influx of new Twitter users following the likes of Jonathan Ross or Britney Spears will mean that the average Twitterer will be somehow more narcisstic. Avid fans and followers of celebrities often put in the same amount of intellectual work that researchers do and the casual ones simply enjoy the occasional insight into the world of the rich and famous - no different from leafing through a tabloid newspaper found on a train. None of this is at all indicative of anything to do with identity or the narcissism or otherwise of our age.





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